Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Isaac Asimov's Fantastic Voyage is the Most Astonishingly Sexist Thing in the World

When I first read Fantastic Voyage, I instinctively blamed it on the 1950s. While researching the book for this post, I learned that it came out in 1966, and was appalled. The lone female character, Cora Peterson, is as helpless a put-upon sex object as I have ever seen in any medium. The book isn't even eligible for the Bechdel Test because there's no other female character she can converse with. Her activities consist of the following: puppy-like adoration for her boss, iciness towards the male protagonist, screaming, being an assistant, screaming, being useless in emergencies, screaming some more, and finally warming up to the protagonist after he saves her life a few times.

This is Cora Peterson. She is the assistant of one Dr. Duval, and is described as such. She is twenty-four years old, has a master's degree and is an experienced medical technician. And yet, when Grant first sees her in person... this happens.
[An Army superior] was talking in a low voice, carefully controlled. "And aside from that, doctor, what is she doing here?"
"Miss Cora Peterson," said Duval [the doctor], icily, "is my assistant. Where I go professionally, she accompanies me professionally."
"This is a dangerous mission..."
"And Miss Peterson has volunteered, understanding full well its dangers."
"A number of men, entirely qualified to help, have also volunteered. Matters would be far less complicated if one of those men accompanied you. I will assign you one."
[Duval launches into long description of how Peterson is "a third and fourth arm" to him, and a very capable technician and he needs her]
Grant's eye moved to Cora Peterson again. She looked acutely embarrassed, yet stared at Duval with the expression Grant had once seen in a beagle's eye when its little boy owner returned from school. Grant found that intensely annoying. (35)
To review: a superior officer tries to keep Peterson from coming along for no reason other than her gender. Instead of defending herself, she stands meekly by and lets Duval speak for her. Later on, when the officer is speaking to a colleague alone, he tosses off this exchange:
"What's wrong with the girl, Cora Peterson?"
"Nothing, why?"
"Your voice was loud enough... Do you know of any reason why she shouldn't be on board?"
"She's a woman. She may not be reliable in emergencies. Besides... [the doctor is an ass, and I objected at him because reasons]." (44)
Please note "the girl". There's no reason on earth why Peterson is a "girl" instead of a woman, to pick out the least disturbing thing about that passage, and yet that's what male characters call her throughout the book. Oh, and on page 54, she thanks Duval for "arranging to have me come", and apologizes to him for being "the cause of unpleasantness between yourself and Dr. Reid". Sigh.

At the book's beginning, Peterson is cool towards Grant and attracted to Duval, the main male authority figure in her life. At its end, she is warm towards Grant and they leave hand in hand. What happens in between?

Grant hits on her mercilessly and unprofessionally throughout the first half of the whole novel. There's some odd male gender issue here where Grant plays himself up to her as a masculine lug instead of an intelligent human, and that shows up in this exchange:
"If you have any footballs you want strung, you let me know. Us physical types are good at that kind of unskilled work."
Cora put down a small screwdriver, brushed her rubber-gloved fingers together and said "Mr. Grant?"
"Yes, ma'am?"
"Are you going to make this entire voyage hideous with your notion of fun?"
"No, I won't, but... Well, how do I talk to you?"
"Like a fellow member of the crew."
"You're also a young woman."
"I know that, Mr. Grant, but what concern is that of yours? It's not necessary to assure me with every remark and gesture that you're aware of my sex. It's wearisome and unnecessary. After this is all over, if you still feel called upon to go through whatever rituals you are accustomed to performing before young women, I will deal with you in whatever fashion seems advisable but for now..."
"All right. It's a date, for afterward." (51)
So that happens. One would think Grant would have learned his lesson, but on the next page...
"Oh, if you could only frivol," he breathed, and fortunately she didn't hear him, or, at least, showed no signs of having done so.
Without warning, she placed his hand on his... [and moves it out of the way of a laser].
Grant said, "You might have warned me."
Cora said, "There is no reason for you to be standing here, is there?"
She lifted the laser, ignoring his offered help and turned toward the storeroom.
"Yes, miss," said Grant, humbly. "When near you henceforward I shall be careful where I place my hand."
Cora looked back as though startled and rather uncertain. Then, for a moment, she smiled.
Grant said "Careful. The cheeks may crack."
Her smile vanished at once. "You promised," she said, icily, and moved into the workroom. (52)
So a few takeaways here:
-'Seriously, shut up, I'm a member of the crew like you are.' 'Okay, pardon me while I flirt with you some more.'
-Note the language in Cora's long speech. It's part of her icy (continually described as icy, cold or, on page 93, "the ice-queen of some polar region lit by a blue-green aurora") demeanor. Read: professionalism.
-This isn't the last time Cora randomly touches Grant. She leans over him to plug in his seatbelt, and later clings to him desperately when Grant saves her during turbulence in the sub.
-Also, Cora is called by her first name throughout the novel, including by the narrator, after Grant asks her if he can. Nobody else is. Everyone else ('everyone else' is all males) goes by their last name.
-Grant is also constantly watching her and making "appreciative inner comment[s] about her beauty" (107) throughout the first third of their journey, whenever he has a chance.

From this point on, the dominant subplot of the book is Cora screaming and Grant saving her from things, and continuing to flirt with her. (Cora yanks Grant's seatbelt. "I was checking to see if you were being tightly held." "Only by the harness, but thanks." (65))

Here are a few:
The approach of the next [whirlpool] made Cora scream in shrill terror. (85)

[Grant saves her from sliding across the floor into a wall, or something, as she] clutched at his shoulder and seized the material of his uniform with viselike desperation. (86)

The laser over the working counter was swinging loose on one hook, its plastic cover off.
"Didn't you bother securing it?" demanded Grant.
Cora nodded wildly, "I did! I did secure it! I swear it. Heavens..."
"Then how could it..."
"I don't know. How can I answer that?"
Duval was behind her, his eyes narrowed and his face hard. He said, "What has happened to the laser, Miss Peterson?"
Cora turned to meet the new questioner. "I don't know. Why do you all turn on me?" [more brouhaha]
[Owens comes in] "My God, the laser!"
"Don't you start," screamed Cora, eyes now swimming in tears. (107-8)

And at that moment, the lifeline twitched and snaked upward, its end flashing past, and out through the opening.
Cora screamed, and kicked herself desperately towards the opening.
Michaels pursued. "You can't do anything," he panted. "Don't be foolish..." (117)

[After getting thrown across the lymphatic system] She was managing to breathe now and heard her own name. Someone was calling. Carefully, she made a pleading sound. Encouraged by the sound of her voice, she screamed as shrilly as she could: "Help! Everybody! Help!" (149) (This is at least sensible, but she doesn't try to free herself when she gets stuck or anything, just waits for Grant.)

[When saved from that predicament and back in the ship after nearly getting squashed by antibodies] Cora was breathing in deep, shuddering gasps. Gently, Duval removed her headpiece, but it was to Grant's arm she clung as she suddenly burst into tears.
"I was so scared," she sobbed. (154)
This is what happens. And it's not like she's performing feats of heroism in the meantime, either. Every heroic deed-doing surgery, piloting the ship, rescuing people, resupplying with oxygen, etc.-is done by Grant or Owens or Duval. And Grant just keeps hitting on her and hitting on her, eventually with her consent. Eventually she 'warms up', that is, she begins to respond to his advances.
[She's lying on a cot] "I'm all right now. I'm just malingering, lying here."
"Why not? You're the most beautiful malingerer I've ever seen. Let's malinger together for a minute, if you don't think that sounds too improper."
She smiled in her turn. "It would be difficult for me to complain that you were too forward. After all, you seem to make a career of saving my life."
"All part of a shrewd and extraordinarily subtle campaign to place you under an obligation to me."
"I am! Most decidedly!"
"I'll remind you of that at the proper time."
"Please do. --But Grant, really, thank you." (157-8)
 Does that sound massively creepy to anyone else, bantering or no? But by the end of the book, Grant and Cora are leaving the military base "hand in warm hand" (186). She's no longer an "ice-queen", and she's no longer excessively formal with Grant. She also displays no traces of her previous attachment to Duval. In short, the hour (or few hours) they spend together changes her entire personality with regards to Grant. She falls for him because of his relentless flirting and because he saves her life several times; she's a bag of useless female-ness at every critical moment in the book; she is continually belittled and disrespected by her colleagues and superiors and seems to accept it as normal (except for one irritated speech to Grant), and she ends up with Grant like a good love-interest should. As Clay Davis might put it, sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit.


Mickal Pitts said...

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Korinthia Klein said...

Guh. Wish this were an isolated case but it's one of SOOOoooo many.

When my mom applied for her first jobs out of college (as an artist in a ad studios) she was told outright by most of them that they didn't hire women. So it wasn't (isn't) just an attitude played out in fiction, it's representative of a mindset that affected real people.

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